In reviewing William Easterly's book on the failures of development aid, The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Effort to Aid the Rest Have Done so Much Ill and So Little Good (2006), Nobel laureate Amartya Sen wrote in Foreign Affairs, "The challenge is to respond to the plight of the hopelessly impoverished without neglecting to insist that help come in useful and productive forms."
Or, as the Chinese proverb has it, "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime."
If only it were that easy. What if our prospective fisherman is starving? Surely it wouldn't be a problem to give him free fish, at least until he's ready to learn his new trade. What if he doesn't have a fishing pole? Should you give him one? (Maybe you should sell it to him. That way he'd truly value it.) But what if the fish in the pond have already been overfished? What if they are contaminated with toxins? What if fishing requires a prohibitively expensive permit? The potential problems are endless. It isn't surprising that one of the best development blogs out there is titled Good Intentions are Not Enough. Helping distressed people is tough. We've been failing for millennia.
Perhaps the greatest problem is the damage our food aid causes
to farmers in developing countries, who are essential to the future health of their societies.
The U.S. government's good intentions—we are the largest source of international food aid in the world by far, spending about $2 billion in taxpayer money each year—are directed not toward the suffering masses but to American farmers and shippers whose voices are heard most clearly in Washington. Under U.S. law, nearly all of our food aid is produced in the United States—predominantly by large agribusinesses like Archer Daniel Midland—and nearly all is delivered to stricken countries by American shippers. The system is shamefully rife with inefficiencies and misplaced priorities. For one, only 35 percent of the U.S. food aid budget is actually spent on food, according to a Government Accountability Office study from 2007 (PDF).
But perhaps the greatest problem is the damage our food aid causes to farmers in developing countries, who are essential to the future health of their societies. Often in the news lately has been the harm that U.S. deliveries have done to the Haitian rice industry over the past few decades. On March 10, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bill Clinton apologized for his administration's role in exporting cheap U.S. rice to Haiti, undercutting local growers. According to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Haitian farmers provided 47 percent of the country's rice in 1988. By the 2008, the figure had dropped to 15 percent. And in a recent report on NPR's Planet Money, reporters described how bags of American rice are still being sold in Haitian markets.
"It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked," said Clinton, who may play a greater role in the future of Haiti than any figure since Toussaint L'Ouverture. (He is U.N. Special Envoy and co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, which is deciding how billions in recovery money will be spent.) "It was a mistake," he added. "I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did. Nobody else."